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How to Feed the Underweight Rower

In today’s world, there is much ado about weight—too much weight. But having a young athlete who is too thin or underweight may be just as worrisome.

While there is a natural ebb and flow with growing bodies, the young rower has additional nutritional needs associated with exercise, namely a need for more calories and nutrients. This fact may create a delicate situation for some young rowers: matching their energy needs for growth while covering the nutritional demands of sport.

Several factors may lead to inadequate nutrition. One, rowing is a high-calorie burning sport, and regular training may use up energy available for growth. Poor eating habits such as skipping meals, and unhealthy food choices can also compromise overall nutrition and available nutrients for adequate growth.

Naturally, if young rowers are too thin or underweight, they are likely missing out on adequate calories and nutrients, and that’s when performance on the water, growth, and overall health may suffer.

A Benchmark for Eating

For the middle school rower, optimal eating for sport should generally consist of three meals (even up to four meals if you are an elite rower) and 2-3 snacks per day. The teen requires more energy for the adolescent growth spurt (the peak of growth during childhood), especially male rowers. They may need 3-4 meals and 1-3 snacks per day.

Food choice is also important. For young athletes, focusing on mostly healthy, nutritious items such as lean protein sources, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy (or non-dairy substitutes), and healthy fats is the key to fueling properly and being satisfied after eating.

Feeding the underweight rower requires attention to food types, quantity and timing of eating. The goal is not to “fatten up” the rower, but to match his energy needs for growth and sport, allowing his natural, healthy body to take shape.

Seven tips for helping the underweight rower meet energy needs and boost nutrition:

Round Out Meals: Make sure to include a variety of food groups, aiming for at least 4-5 food groups at main meals. Here’s what that could look like:

Breakfast – 1-2 Egg sandwiches (egg, cheese, Canadian bacon or ham, on English muffin) Banana, Orange Juice.
Lunch – Hoagie sandwich (turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, avocado on whole grain roll) Pretzels, Apple, Whole milk.
Dinner –
Chicken Parmesan, whole grain pasta tossed with olive oil, asparagus, mixed berries, water

Scale Up Your Snacks: Offer 2-3 different food groups, focusing on hearty, good-tasting combinations of food. Examples: Cereal, fruit and milk; nut butter, crackers and raisins; baked potato, butter and cheese; or peanut butter and jam on whole grain bread.

Go for Density: Some foods are naturally higher in calories and these foods should be incorporated into the underweight rower’s diet. Include whole milk dairy products such as cheese, nuts, dried fruit, avocado, granola, salad dressings, peanut butter, Nutella, and oils.

Make Drinks Count: Water is great for everyone, but the underweight rower should focus on drinks that also offer calories and nutrition. Try whole milk, flavored milk, or a non-dairy substitute such as soymilk, 100% juice, a smoothie, or a breakfast drink to down some extra calories and nutrients.

Fill Up Before Bedtime: Eating something right before bedtime can supply the body with an extra dose of calories and nutrients that won’t be burned off. Try peanut butter toast, instant pudding made with whole milk, or a milkshake.

Pad Food with Fat: The addition of fat such as olive oil, butter or avocado can boost calories, while easing the requirement for eating large quantities of food. Add an extra swipe of butter, mayonnaise or avocado to sandwiches, “double-dress” cooked pasta (toss pasta after it is cooked in olive oil, then top with butter or olive-oil soft spread), or sprinkle cheese on entrees to boost the caloric content of food. Once a healthier weight is reached, you can ditch the extra fat.

Eat on Time: Use a structured approach with eating to assure the underweight rower is getting nutrition on board predictably throughout the day. Younger rowers can eat every 3-4 hours, while teens can schedule meals and snacks every 3-5 hours.

This structure not only helps with nutrition, it also assists in building a rhythmic appetite for eating.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids here.

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